Walk down Parrish Street in Durham, North Carolina today and most likely what will stand out to you is construction. There’s a 27 story structure in the midst of becoming a building, which is currently the epicenter of local controversy. It’s impossiBULL to miss - fenced off and taking up half a city block. Cranes, workers and building supplies constantly in motion. Dizzying spectacle to say the least.
Across the way another chain link fence came down in the late summer of 2017, after nearly 2 years to reveal the re-envisioned Jack Tarr hotel now as the new boutique hotel Unscripted. While you’re in the area you best stop and see Major, the large bull statue standing in CCB plaza. He too can’t be missed, standing strong, seemingly unphased by it all.
It’s easy to get caught up in all this. The city surely has. Good, bad or simply different, all 27 stories will be completed. Someday soon the chain link fence will come down to reveal a completed One City Center. The constant clamor of construction will quiet and Durham’s skyline will be forever redefined. The world will keep turning. It is what it is.
Look beyond all that. You’re standing where truly incrediBULL American history was made. Where collaboration, perseverance and ingenuity outweighed societal vitriol and systemic racism. The only place where a 27 story building will always be in the shadow of a 6 story building 100 years its senior. Welcome to Durham's historic Black Wall Street.
Founded in 1898, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was originally housed within an a single office at the old Durham courthouse bringing in less than $1000 in revenue by the end of 1899. By 1910 revenue was at a quarter million, which would be the equivalent of over $6 million dollars today.
The company grew from an office to taking up an entire up story of a building. By 1921 the company’s growth outgrew their building located at 116 W Parrish Street and commanded that building be demolished and replaced by a 6 story building that boldly defied any preconceived notion America had of a black owned business. A point and history was made.
The iconic 6 story NC Mutual building was designed by architects Rose and Rose. Now, roughly a century later, on the very same street, Tobias Rose along with Dee McDougal, Jesica Averhart and Talib Graves-Manns are the social-architects of the new Black Wall Street, a non-profit that builds upon the original history and spirit of Black Wall Street to motivate, support and promote thought leadership and entrepreneurship.
Black Wall Street: Homecoming Mission Statement: “Black Wall Street celebrates innovation and entrepreneurship within diverse, multicultural communities. Created as an extension of what was built during the historic Black Wall Street heyday. BWS aims to increase the number of minority entrepreneurs that grow successful, scalable businesses by (a) creating conversations and promoting thought leadership around diversity, technology and entrepreneurship, and (b) providing founders with access to investor networks and investors with access to deal flow outside their typical referral sources.”
I sat down with Tobias in November 2016 to learn more about his role in the Durham community, inclusive of Black Wall Street. He’d just come up for air from the second annual Black Wall Street: Homecoming event in October. It would be a full year before I was aBULL to attend the next Black Wall Street: Homecoming to see what it’s all about. I saw why Tobias is proud of it.
Although the interview is now a year old, Tobias’ passion and inspiration for Black Wall Street beam through his words. “This past October, we held our second Black Wall Street: Homecoming where we brought together founders, entrepreneurs and CEOs from all over the nation. Mr. Phil Freelon, a man I have deep respect for as a fellow designer, gave an incredible speech on inclusion, as well as his work as lead architect on the Smithsonian National African-American Museum of History and Culture.
“We want to tell those kinds of stories. Other entrepreneurs come to our events to hear these kinds of things and they understand its value. I’ve been thinking on ways to get to underserved communities to do the same thing. How do we inspire and plant resources for their growth and sustainability?
“I think Durham is a really interesting model. As soon as you walk 1 mile east [from downtown center], it instantly changes. It’s not like Downtown. That’s not okay. It’s not okay in any city. For me, it’s not right when people live in poverty, because that’s a sign of something deeper.
“To have the amount of poverty we have in Durham is embarrassing. We have too much good in Durham for them to be neglected. I use the word ‘neglect’ because that’s what it is. We’ve found ways to educate those that are privileged and there hasn’t been enough work to educate those that aren’t. We don’t effectively educate or provide resources.
“To that point, I don’t think we’re doing the work that we could do to improve our public school system. People in these communities don’t have access to Montessori or private schools. The privileged have access to these kind of resources, the rest of our people don’t. They work in Durham, but they don’t want to put their kids in Durham’s schools. It’s something we need to address now.
“While our state has issues with education, this is Durham. We’re a city built on innovation. Now is the time to innovate our education infrastructure. I genuinely feel like anyone can do anything. Innovation happens when you feel like you can do anything. People solve problems with this mindset and that’s what we need.”
Tobias was quick to point out that innovation is a longstanding part of Durham’s history; it's what made Durham. Most recent example of that being the reinvention and rejuvenation of the downtown area. Abandoned tobacco warehouses becoming the proclaimed Tech Hub of the South and housing the restaurants that put Durham on the map as a Foodie Mecca.
With conviction he continued, “We’ve done it before. Durham used to be a place where people didn’t want to go downtown. Now, Downtown Durham is a destination where people want to be. Now, we don’t have enough parking to accommodate everyone who wants to here! If we can do that, we can do it in other Durham communities. Not only can we figure it out and we can do it without erasing the culture or displacing the people. Let the community grow in the ways it wants.
“This is something that hits home. I grew up with many people that lived in underserved communities. Back then, I didn’t realize that’s what it was, because we were all happy together. Looking deeper, you realize it’s a part of a cycle that started before they were born. They never had a chance. That comes to mind when I see the underserved areas of Durham and it bothers the hell out of me.
“I hear conversations where people say, “Why don’t they just do…” What they fail to realize what has been happening in these communities for generations that makes it extremely difficult for them to pick themselves up and be self-sustainable.
“I’m passionate about ways to build communities. How do we build it and make it better? I’d love to see incubators where we teach people how to do more than tech. I talk to people in the barbershop who talk about all of these things that they want to do, but they don’t have the resources to do them. Pathways need to be talked about in the schools, at home and in the neighborhoods.
“Consider the diversity of thought in any community. People are interested in different things when it comes to this natural sociological ecosystem. I’m not a super religious person, but I’m very spiritual, and I think God puts people here for different reasons, different purposes. Some are interested in clean water, some are interested in subterranean power, marketing, branding, cooking, etcetera. You need all of those things to make a community work.
“How do you educate people on these kinds of things? How do you show them things they’ve never seen before and integrate that into their thought? What if the conversation was about cultivating ideas? We need to encourage underserved communities and work to help them build their companies. There’s too much untapped potential and innovation there.
“I care deeply about Durham. I love this city and I feel like there’s a lot that can be done. The love I have extends throughout the entire town. When I see situations where I think we need to take a closer look, I’m going to address it. That’s who I am.
“We’ve done some great things, but there are so many areas that I see as blank canvases. The politics in this city are loose enough to affect change and I know some of the resources are already out there. There are also droves of people that actually care. How do you pull all of those things together, pool resources and be brave enough to be the catalyst for development - WITH the community - in areas outside of Downtown Durham? You’re getting money downtown, how do you invest in the community?”
All of this is definitely something to think about, but moreover take action. Since Durham has been, it’s been a city that has defied the odds again and again. A city where anything is possiBULL. Trace the history back and Durham is quite literally a city that was created by a tobacco seed growing in the ashes of the Civil War. The Bull City’s very existence is a blatant defiance of impossibility.
Read more about Tobias Rose in his May 2017 Bulls of Durham feature: The Creative Bull Bringing Black Wall Street Home . To learn more about Black Wall Street: Homecoming and get in the loop for the 2018 gathering click HERE.
The Bulls of Durham 1st Edition Pre-Order
Signed, first print copy of "The Bulls of Durham" living history book. Projected book launch is April 10th, 2019, Durham's 150th Anniversary. Your book will be paired with a BULL bookmark made out of North Carolina wood.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.